Upon their arrival in Nepal from Tibet, refugees must make their way to the capital city of Kathmandu and register at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre. From there, their cases are documented and arrangements are made for transport to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Dharamsala, India.
Dharamsala is also the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and home to the largest Tibetan exiled community, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
A temporary home
From monks and nuns, to students and laymen, the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre receives Tibetan refugees from all walks of life. Here, the new arrivals are provided with counseling and further medical treatment before they are integrated into the exiled community.
Some may be placed at one of several refugee camps around India, while others will reunite with family members who are already settled in the country. Yet others will enroll in the Tibetan Transit School, which provides a basic education and vocational courses to new arrivals from Tibet who are between 18 and 30-years-old.
At 58-years-old, Lhamo* did not imagine that she would ever leave Tibet. One of ten children, she grew up in a village high in the mountains of Kham province, where turnips grew in abundance and education was based in the home. But after the Chinese occupation, even life in her small village changed, when the government began imposing high taxes.
“My mother used to say that rats were living a much happier life than us because we were facing such difficulties,” she recalls of that time. “The restrictions on our lives were so severe that my parents even didn’t have the freedom to eat what they wanted. If they had a piece of meat or a little bit of Chang [Tibetan barley/rice beer] they had to hide it, because if caught, they would be considered rich and tortured, so you had to pretend as if you had nothing to eat.”
Lhamo moved to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa City, in the 1980s, and soon thereafter, began dabbling in business, selling clothes at a modest shop in Dham, the main border crossing between Tibet and Nepal. Lhamo’s passage to Nepal was relatively straight forward considering her proximity to the border, but making the decision to leave Tibet, her three children, and her past behind is something that plagues her to this day. “I told [checkpoint officials] that I was going to live in Dham – but inside my heart, I knew that I would go to India.”
When Karma left Tibet in July 2011, he didn’t even inform his parents of his plan, as he knew they wouldn’t allow him to go. But the intrepid 23-year-old wanted to pursue his monastic education further. Armed with a decent supply of “tsampa” (a popular porridge made from ground barley), eating utensils, plastic to protect him from wet weather, 2500 CNY (US$400), and a collection of maps, Karma set off on a journey to Nepal that would last a year.
A childhood interest in map reading helped guide him across the mountain ranges into Bhutan. From there, he was advised by a nomadic family to follow the river, which led him to the remote Indian state of Sikkim. But upon his arrival, Karma was discovered by local authorities and jailed for 10 months in the state capital of Gangtok. A renowned Tibetan in the area came to know of his story and took him under his wing. When he was released in June 2012, he accompanied Karma to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Nepal.
Lobsang*, a 42-year-old monk from Kham province, had been planning to leave Tibet six years ago in order to escape religious repression, when protests broke out in Lhasa in early 2008. Security measures were heightened and he had to put his plans on hold. But his frustration reached its tipping point when he was instructed to publicly dissolve his allegiance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in writing later that year – instead of producing this letter, Lobsang wrote a letter denouncing the Chinese government, signed his name at the bottom, then pasted it on a state official’s door.
The notoriety he gained for his act provided him some immunity from persecution by Chinese authorities. But when the storm calmed, officials located Lobsang and beat him. He spent one month in hospital recovering from his injuries and was harassed by officials right up until his departure in November 2011.
Lobsang claims that they are aware of his arrival in India and are investigating his case. In the meantime, he is pursuing his monastic education in Dharamsala.
After staging a small protest with a homemade flag of Tibet and a portrait of the Dalai Lama, Sonam*, 21, knew that the only way to avoid identification and persecution by Chinese authorities was to run away from his nomadic life in Kham province.
“I thought that I would never see His Holiness and would not get education opportunity, so I did a protest in the town district area,” Sonam says. “Later, what I know was that, the Chinese police had many CCTV cameras at different places and somehow they knew who I was. But they only [had a photo] and didn’t know about my family and home – they thought that I was from the same town where I protested.”
By July 2011, Sonam had managed to make his way to Purang border crossing in western Tibet. Recounting the anxiety that he felt as he and the group of refugees he was travelling with tried to evade detection by border police, Sonam explains that he even carried a knife in the event that the police caught him. “It sounded like we were making a lot of noise since we crossed the border in the middle of the night,” he explains. “We would walk where the light was gone, because if we didn’t, the police would catch us [with their spotlights].” The group spent eight days walking, before safely arriving at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu in August 2011.
“In the case that Tibet gets freedom, then I will go back,” says Sonam, who is now at the Tibetan Transit School in Dharamsala, which provides both a basic education and vocational courses to new arrivals from Tibet who are between 18 and 30-years-old. “If not, I am going to stay in India, other wise there is no place to go.”
Tenzin + nieces
With his monastery suffering a deficit of monastic scholars, 30-year-old Tenzin* knew that the only way to pursue his religious education further was to leave Tibet. So, for a year, he planned his exit and took official leave from the monastery when the time came in December 2011, in order not to raise any red flags among regulating bodies.
But when he was asked to take his two nieces, aged 7 and 9, with him on the 12-day walk from their village in Tibet to Kathmandu, the journey became significantly more challenging. It was further complicated when the girls’ identity cards were lost along the way, an unfortunate incident which resulted in an eight month delay in Kathmandu while they waited for replacement documents.
Now in India, the girls will be enrolled in Tibetan schools in the north and their uncle will live in a monastery nearby to be close to them.
Like Lhamo, Nyidon has also been separated from her children. In 2006, when she noticed that schools in Kham province were increasing the use of Chinese for classroom instruction, the 37-year-old mother-of-three decided to send her two eldest children to India to continue their education in Tibetan. But she wasn’t only concerned about their education – their future in the job market was also compromised.
“My younger brother was a political prisoner – he protested against Chinese in 2008,” Nyidon explains. “So they considered my family as a politically-related family. If our children would graduate, [the government] said that they would not provide jobs for them so I found no peace over there.”
Six years later, in April 2012, she and her youngest child were finally able to attempt the border crossing to join them in exile. Once in Nepal, however, Nyidon was separated from her daughter, as their guides tried to strategize the best way to safely deliver them both to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu. “I felt so scared – if I was caught by the police then I would be imprisoned, and what would happen to my daughter?” she remembers. “So when I arrived at the Reception Center I cried a lot.”
While Nyidon is excited at the prospect of being reunited with her other two children after having spent more than half a decade apart, she is also faced with a lot of uncertainty. Because of her age, she does not qualify for admission to the Tibetan Transit School for further education and, as a farmer, she does not possess – what are considered – transferable skills. Nyidon also doesn’t know when she’ll see her husband again. “I feel so upset. I want to meet him again, but he needs good money to leave, so it is very difficult.”
At just 23-years-old, Pema* has spent a total of 12 months behind bars in one of Tibet’s largest prisons. As new policies began to affect her education, the young nomadic farmer from Kham province was urged by her parents to leave Tibet and continue her education in India.
She first attempted to flee in 2007 with a group of 30 others who pretended to be on a pilgrimage at the sacred Mount Kailash in western Tibet – but the group was discovered by police. Pema was jailed at Shigatse Prison (approximately 250km from the border to Nepal) for four months and sent back to Kham province, where officials had already been warned to restrict her movement. In 2010, she paid 15 000 CNY (US$2400) for fake travel permits – but was caught at a security checkpoint on her way to the border. This time, her sentence at Shigatse Prison was eight months and included a long and difficult period of solitary confinement.
Finally, in winter 2011, Pema made her third and final attempt to flee, going so far as to disguise herself as a Nepalese woman to avoid detection once in Nepal. She is now studying at the Tibetan Transit School.